Regardless of what they end up doing in terms of player personnel this winter, the Cubs’ primary goal for 2019 is to be more intentional about creating a winning environment. And if that seems strange in light of them racking up 95 victories last season, just think about how you felt as a fan watching them play. Perhaps you’re among the minority who genuinely had fun the whole time, but it was clear to most that the Cubs were much more flat and dull than in years past.
If 2017 was their World Series hangover year, this past season was one in which they just looked washed. And I mean like the way the kids say it these days, not so fresh and so clean, clean like Outkast. Or maybe we mash those definitions up and say the Cubs look like that favorite shirt that has been laundered too many times without using whatever brand-name detergent best prevents colors from fading.
The Cubs were playing like a person on cold medicine, as though their minds were operating a few inches outside their bodies. That disconnect was evident in the failed relationships left in the wake of Chili Davis‘s brief tenure, and the same may be true of Jim Hickey as well. Physical maladies played a major role as well, sapping the roster of key performers while further contributing to the lack of mental edge.
And that’s a real thing, edge. Consider the minimal gap between what the Cubs were and what they could have been. A single tally late in any of a number of those contests in which they failed to score more than once could have been the difference in losing division tiebreaker and wild card game and hosting the NLDS. The optics shift quite a bit if that’s the case. Just a little more urgency or a skosh of grit here or there could have made the difference.
The people in the front office understand there’s more to winning than just the talent on the field, which is why they’ve been remaking the coaching staff. Theo Epstein also spoke about changes they’re affecting based on exit-interview feedback, though he wasn’t willing to discuss the specifics until “[they] make some adjustments and then roll it out to the players.”
So what does that mean? Is it a matter of changing how early they arrive to the ballpark or how frequently they take BP? Maybe it has to do with the time they spend in their fully-appointed luxury clubhouse, or perhaps the training staff will be forced to replace the hot tub jets with outboard motors like in Major League. Who knows?
Procedural changes aside, one likelihood involves working more closely with a man who was as integral as anyone in creating the atmosphere that made the Cubs so fun to watch in 2015 and ’16. David Ross achieved cult hero status among fans and teammates alike — dude’s autobiography is titled Teammate — as the Cubs realized greater success than anyone alive had dared dream possible.
“We have talked to him about being around a little bit more this year in a bit of an expanded role,” Epstein said during the GM Meetings in Carlsbad, CA. “We’ll see how that negotiation goes. Not about money, just getting him around more often.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Ross mentioned in connection to the Cubs’ future, though most of the other references have come from rumors involving Joe Maddon’s tenuous tenure. But Ross potentially stepping into his old skipper’s shoes after 2019 isn’t all that far-fetched an idea. Sahadev Sharma’s straw poll of rival execs (subscription required/recommended) revealed a consensus that Grandpa Rossy would be Maddon’s successor.
And as Sharma wrote, “some suggested that they weren’t just going with the obvious choice, but they truly believed Ross would be the right move for the Cubs at that time.” While sentimentality rises to the forefront, there’s ample precedent for a former player with zero managerial experience stepping into that role. Most will point to Aaron Boone, one of Ross’s colleagues at ESPN for a year, as an example, but the Cubs are probably looking more closely at the man in their backyard.
Craig Counsell spent the final five seasons of his 16-year career with the Brewers, eventually retiring in 2011 at age 40. He then spent three years in the front office working alongside GM Doug Melvin and learning the game from a different angle than he’d ever been exposed to as a player.
“The biggest thing that helped me was being in the front office for three years,” Counsell told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers during an NLDS victory over the Rockies that the Cubs narrowly missed being part of. “I became more well-rounded as a thinker and someone that was going to be a leader.”
Ross retired at age 39 after a 15-year career and will be in his third year away from an active roster here in 2019. He’s remained around the game as part of ESPN’s baseball coverage, which gives him the chance to pick the brains of various players and execs while viewing the game from, quite literally, a different vantage point.
And since catchers are really an extension of the manager on the field, Ross’s playing career would have prepared him to some extent. There’s also his ability to have a red ass and get in a teammate’s face without alienating that player or losing his respect. As a journeyman who spent most of his career as a backup, but ho then worked with his sport’s prima donnas on the mound, Ross is able to relate to just about everyone.
Those are qualities that have served Counsell well in Milwaukee and they’d surely ease Ross’s transition from the TV studio to the clubhouse. If, that is, the Cubs indeed see fit to move in that direction at some point. And keep in mind that we might not be talking about 2020, even though that’s when Maddon’s contract expires. The Cubs are waiting to have any extension talks until later in the season, but it’s not out of the question that he could be around for another year or more.
Perhaps Ross could even assume the bench coach role should Maddon receive an extension and Brandon Hyde isn’t again passed over for the head gig somewhere else. That will all sort itself out in time. For now, it’s just a matter of the Cubs wanting to move Grandpa Rossy a little closer to home so their young players can pick his brain and maybe sharpen those edges a little bit.